My VIPs for this week are the many women who fought for the right to vote for American women. Hundreds and thousands of women worked for nearly 100 years for women in America to have the right to vote and to be considered as full citizens of the United States.
When the United States first became a nation in the late 1790s, only white men who had money and/or owned property were allowed to vote. By the 1820s and 1830s most states had given this right to all white men.
During this same period of time women began playing a prominent role in all sorts of reform groups – “temperance leagues, religious movements, moral-reform societies, anti-slavery organizations. It seems that women recognized that they could do more than be “a pious, submissive wife and mother concerned exclusively with home and family.” With all these incidences coming together at the same time, women began thinking in “a new way about what it meant to be a woman and a citizen of the United States.”
This writer did not know this fact previously, but abolitionists were concerned by women’s rights as much as by freedoms for blacks. A group of abolitionists met in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to discuss the problem of women being treated as second-class citizens in America. The group consisted of mostly women but contained a few men also. They were all invited to the meeting by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The group agreed that women in America deserved to have their own political identities.
The delegates to the convention in Seneca Falls produced a document known as the Declaration of Sentiments and styled it after the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The delegates believed that women deserved to have the right to vote – as well as other freedoms. You see, women living in America at that time could not own property, could not have money, and could not vote. Any wages that a woman earned were given to her husband.
Once the idea of suffrage began to sprout in the minds of the women, the movement began. It gathered steam in the 1850s but was sidelined during the Civil War. The push to give black men suffrage and citizenship brought the subject of women’s rights back to the forefront. Suffrage leaders sought to have women rights included in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, but they were not successful.
The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868 to extend the protections of the Constitution to “all citizens” but defines “citizens” as “male.” The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified two years later in 1870 and guaranteed the right to vote to black men.
The two amendments did not sit well with the advocates for women’s suffrage. In 1869 the National Woman Suffrage Association was formed, and the group began their fight for a constitutional amendment for universal suffrage. The suffrage movement split into two groups but reunited in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as its first president.
This time the advocates for women’s suffrage used a different argument. Previously, they argued that men and women should have the same rights and responsibilities because they were “created equal.” This time they argued that women should have the vote because they were different from men. They used the argument that their domestic abilities could become a political virtue and help the nation to become “purer, more moral `maternal commonwealth.’”
This argument connected several political agendas. Advocates for temperance that women’s suffrage would bring a large voting bloc to their cause. Middle-aged white people thought it would maintain white supremacy.
Only four states allowed women to vote before 1910 – Wyoming (1869), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), and Idaho (1896). After 1910 the women intensified their lobbying efforts and more states granted the right to vote to them. Other states began to extend the right, but most of them were in western states with southern and eastern states resisting.
The national organization decided to do a blitz attack and send advocates everywhere calling for the right to vote for women. A splinter group of advocates decided to use more radical, even militant, means – picketing the White House, hunger strikes, and even going to jail.
Even though the suffrage movement slowed during World War I, the war actually advanced their cause. Women worked to help the war effort and showed that they were patriotic and deserving of full citizenship rights. Their argument finally brought results. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on August 26, 1920, stating: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” A few months later on November 2, “more than 8 million women across the United States voted in elections for the first time.” Women became full citizens 50 years after full rights were given to black men, but women continue to fight discrimination in homes, schools, and businesses.